A New History of the Velvet Revolution

Czechoslovakia is not just another little country in Eastern Europe. It differs from all the others in at least one critical respect. It is the only country between Germany and the former Soviet Union that has had an authentic democratic past. From 1918 to 1938, it was a thriving, free outpost of the West of a special type. It was a multinational state with Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Jews. While Poland had a military dictatorship under Marshal Pilsudski and Hungary had another under Admiral Horthy, Czechoslovakia was guided by a professor, Tomášs Garrigue Masaryk. If Czechoslovakia with the benefit of such a past cannot make the transition from communism to liberal democracy, the outlook for the other states of Eastern Europe is far bleaker.

Czechoslovakia also has a special claim on the West. It was the West, primarily France and Great Britain, which helped cut short the life of Czechoslovak democracy in 1938. “Munich” is still more than the name of a city; it is a symbol of betrayal and self-delusion. For the next half century, Czechoslovakia’s history was imposed on it from the outside. The Nazis made Slovakia into a puppet state and the Czechs into a protectorate, the Soviets made both of them a satellite within their empire. If ever a country was a victim of circumstances beyond its control, it was Czechoslovakia.

Suddenly, in November 1989, Czechoslovakia awoke from a long nightmare. It produced a novel political phenomenon—the “Velvet Revolution.” From a distance, it appeared to be the ideal type of revolutionary change—the collapse of an oppressive Communist regime and the bloodless victory of an aroused people. In the long, equivocal history of revolution, something new had emerged. In the past, old regimes were overthrown after more or less protracted, violent struggles. Czechoslovak communism seemed to come to an end in a way that was untainted and unprecedented.

Three years later, Czechoslovakia is a sorely troubled country. It is beset by innumerable practical problems but above all by a crisis of identity. The country is about to break up into two parts, Czech and Slovak, which at best cannot fail to be painful. The separation will tear apart three quarters of a century of bonds between the two peoples. Both Czechs and Slovaks are about to enter a dark tunnel; no one knows how long it will be or what it will be like on the other side.

Something else helped the Velvet Revolution to unravel. Other revolutions have devoured their favorite children. This one did something else—cast them aside. In only two years, they went from winning everything to being wiped out politically.

How did the “Velvet Revolution” come to this? The answer must start with another question: What kind of revolution was it? What led up to it and what led away from it? Was it really a revolution or something else?

It was, at best, a peculiar revolution. It did not start out to be one. It began …

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Letters

The End of Czechoslovakia’: An Exchange April 8, 1993